Monday, 23 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 3

‘Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. Once you stand back, you don’t try to make things different, it’s not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever’s going on without the usual critical commentary.’ That’s Ruby Wax’s take. Russ Harris says: ‘We connect with the world directly, rather than being caught up in our thoughts. We let our judgments, complaints and criticisms come and go like passing cars, and we fully engage in the present moment. We see our thoughts for what they are and let them go. We make room for our feelings and let them be.’

Ruby makes the distinction between doing and being. ‘The ‘doing’ mode drives us on to achieve things in our lives, while the ‘being’ mode ‘has no voice, it’s just directly sensing something, and being in the eye of the experience’. It’s what psychologists call flow, when you’re completely absorbed in something ‘without added running commentary’. You’re totally immersed and involved, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Ruby finds it when she’s scuba diving. For me it might be when I’m taking photographs. For you it might be gardening, playing the piano, running, hide-and-seek with your grandchild, painting the kitchen wall, performing on stage. ‘In this mode, the mind isn’t flipping between the past and the future, it has nothing to do, nowhere to go, so it can start to settle and slow down from the high-speed chaos, noticing what’s going on in front of your eyes at that moment and experiencing thoughts as passing phenomena that arise and disappear.’

There are many books on mindfulness, and you can probably find an eight-week course running near you which will give you the tools you need if you really want to get into it. Both Russ and Ruby’s books contain many different types of exercises which encourage a mindful and accepting awareness. There’s a wide variety so you’re bound to find something that makes sense for you. I’ve limited myself to a few here which are brief and easy to explain.

Russ offers Breathing to Connect: ‘Take ten slow, deep breaths. For the first five, focus on your chest and abdomen; connect with your breathing. For the next five, expand your focus, so that as well as being aware of your breathing, you’re also connecting fully with your environment; that is, while noticing your breathing, also notice what you can see, hear, touch taste, and smell.’ You can do this exercise for a while if you’ve got time to spare, and you might just take three or four deep breaths if you’re waiting in a queue or sitting at traffic lights.

Part of the process is to notice how our minds distract us from focussing on the present. That’s okay. It’s what our minds do. Both Ruby and Russ suggest we might name or label thoughts as they come up. ‘I’m never going to get that essay in on time’ could be named as ‘panicking’. ‘I bet he earns more than me’ could be labelled as ‘comparing’. ‘I wish I could afford to take the kids to Disneyland’ could be ‘longing’. ‘The laundry needs doing’ could be ‘planning’. If we can notice these thoughts for what they are and return our attention to the present, they’re not really a problem – we try not to get caught up in them, but we just let them pop up and pass on through.

Russ encourages us to recognise that our minds are trying to help us, trying to keep us safe by alerting us to potential issues that we may need to think about. So he suggests we adopt the practice of thanking our minds for their input. When we find ourselves thinking ‘It’s about time I finished clearing out the garage’ when we’re trying to enjoy a relaxing bath, we can literally say ‘Thank you, Mind’. We acknowledge the thought, and let it be, without having to do anything about it.

If you’d like to be more in tune with physical sensations and how they’re related to your feelings, you could try Ruby’s exercise on emotions. ‘Focus in on a predominant feeling and notice where an emotion arises in the body and explore into the core of the feeling, the edges, pulsing, throbbing or stabbing. Notice how eager your mind is to create a story out of a feeling, which might not even have anything to do with the feeling. Stick with the feeling, and skip the running commentary.’

If you’ve found some of this interesting you could read more at and You could have a look at The Happiness Trap or Sane New World or any of the other host of books on mindfulness. In times of anxiety I find it helpful to think of myself as being more than my feelings, thoughts and sensations. I try to see myself as the sky, containing all the weather that comes and goes – sunshine, fog, clouds, storms, heat and frost. None of it lasts. It all passes.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, you might find some time here and there to set aside worries about the future and regrets about the past, and focus, however briefly, on the present. It could make a difference to your life.

I leave you with an apple I noticed that was just crying out to be gazed at. And a few words from William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 2

The big tool that both Ruby Wax and Russ Harris advocate is acceptance, which can be reached through mindful practices. We’re going to feel difficult emotions, we may be anxious about looking good at the Christmas party, envious of someone having more invitations than us, angry that we’re doing all the work. But if we can accept these feelings, rather than telling ourselves off for having them, or trying to pretend we don’t have them, or ignoring them altogether, we’re likely to be better placed to keep going.

Russ talks about the ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, we’ll be doing our level best to avoid any negative, painful, difficult emotions. And this may give rise to other difficult stuff – we’ll feel angry that we’re anxious, or worry that we’re overloading our bodies by feeling stressed, or guilt that we’re letting things get on top of us. We may try to avoid or get rid of the feelings, by overworking, overeating, drinking too much, spending hours on Facebook. There’s no problem if we distract ourselves in these ways in moderation, but they can lead to addictions, problems in our relationships, health concerns etc.

Our childhood experience will inevitably have an impact on our tendency to label emotions as good and bad, positive and negative. You might find it useful to think about the messages you received about which emotions were acceptable and which were not, and about how feelings were dealt with in your family – was anger freely expressed? Were you encouraged to be different, and have your own view?

As Russ sees it, the problem with judging feelings as good or bad is that we’ll struggle to avoid the ‘bad’ ones. It’s the struggle that wears us out, rather than the feelings themselves. He urges readers to ‘let go of judging your feelings altogether and see them for what they are: a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through your body’.

Ruby puts it like this: ‘This doesn’t mean that you sit there like a lump of tofu with a bindi on your head, listening to the sitar. It means when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change – change constantly and never stop chattering – you don’t fight it, but rather understand and accept it for what it is.’ She believes that: ‘Pain exists but suffering is optional. You can’t stop the unhappy mood but you can stop what happens next. Fear is in fact never as bad as the fear of fear.’

If we can recognise the struggle and flick the switch off, we let the feelings come. They may be unpleasant, and we may not like them, but we try to let them be. ‘With the struggle switch off, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low, and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.’

That’s all very well, I hear you say. But how? Next time we’ll think about how we might move towards some feelings of acceptance.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Cooling the engine

Christmas is coming … Some people look forward to it. Many do not. You may recognise some of the following scenarios; you may well have other reasons for finding Christmas a challenge. You’re facing the first Christmas since you lost someone close to you. There isn’t enough money to do the things you’d like to. Those happy TV ads look nothing like your family life. You feel all your friends have more invitations than you do. You’ll be spending Christmas alone again. Your partner leaves everything to you. You meant to get fit beforehand to look your best but you’ve been tucking into festive meals. You can’t stand the crowds in the shops. You know you’ll drink too much and regret it. Your parents are making you choose where to spend Christmas.

It’s likely that some or all of the above would make you feel stressed and anxious. And if things are mostly going pretty well in your life, you may still be starting to feel the clock ticking towards the deadline. Over the next weeks I’m going to share some thoughts on stress and anxiety, and offer some suggestions as to how you might help yourself.

First up, it might be useful to consider what a stress response actually is. There’s plenty of neuroscience out there to explain what’s going on in our brains, and I’ve found Russ Harris in his book The Happiness Trap and Ruby Wax in Sane New World to be among the best at making the science accessible. Russ explains that when we feel threatened, we move into fight or flight mode – either we defend ourselves and stand and fight, or we run away. And there are physical changes in our bodies to facilitate this: ‘Your heart rate speeds up, your body floods with adrenaline, blood shunts to the large muscles of your arms and legs, and your breathing increases to give you more oxygen’. Ruby adds that when the stress hormone cortisol is released, activity in the hippocampus (the part of our brain which organises memory) is reduced, and cortisol also stops our digestion and the urge to have sex, as ‘thinking about sex or eating during a disaster would only make things worse’. 

In prehistoric times, we needed this response to keep ourselves alive, to detect where the dangers were and respond appropriately. Here’s Ruby again: ‘Out on the Savannah, our physiological responses were perfectly suited to deal with stressors (run from the big animals with big teeth). These days we can’t just run from what drives up our anxiety and stress: mortgages, money problems, looking hot, relationships and deadlines. Evolution did not set us up to suffer Jurassic Park levels of stress, day in, day out. That’s the bitch of living at today’s pace.’ Russ Harris believes that ‘our mind, trying to make sure we don’t get killed, sees potential danger almost everywhere’, and maybe that includes Christmas preparations, the difficult-to-buy-for relative, when to get the sprouts, whether the tree will lose its needles before the big day.

Both Russ and Ruby make the point that we just weren’t built to be constantly on the lookout for danger. As Ruby puts it in her no-nonsense style: ‘The problem these days as modern man is that when we perceive danger, adrenaline shoots into us but because we can’t kill a traffic warden or eat an estate agent, the juice never comes back down. We’re in a constant state of red light alert, like a car siren that drives you nuts.’

So that’s where we are, or at least some of us, some of the time. Next time we’ll think about how we can cool the engine a little, and take a bit of time out from the hectic panic.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Are you one up or one down?

As I mentioned last time, Terry Real, a family therapist and lecturer, has some interesting ideas about men and women in heterosexual relationships. In his book How Can I Get Through To You?, he talks about closing the intimacy gap between men and women. He’s a robust kind of therapist who cheerfully states that he takes sides, and he tends to make sweeping statements about men and women, observing that men in relationship take a ‘one up’ role, while women are in ‘one down’ mode. In my experience I have found the reality to be more nuanced than that – in some relationships the dynamic fluctuates, so that sometimes one partner is ‘one up’ and sometimes they’re ‘one down’. And indeed I worked with one couple where the woman was very definitely ‘one up’ at all times. Having said that, I have seen many couples where the man does tend to be ‘one up’, and I think it’s useful anyway to consider the inevitable impact that the ‘one up/one down’ dynamic has on a relationship, regardless of gender.

In Real’s experience he has found that these are the typical male/female positions:

Many men …

  • are raised to be competitive and to perform, which makes them disconnect from their feelings and gives them a sense that they have to be brave and strong at all times
  • assess their value by their achievements
  • are unhappy with their partner’s unhappiness
  • are on the receiving end of their partner’s unhappiness and get used to waiting for the storm to pass
  • find it difficult to cope when the going gets tough – they struggle to express how they feel, and they don’t get help
  • take the option to run away from difficult relationships/family life
  • feel they have to be invulnerable, working hard, performing well, and that this precludes love and connection
  • are uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy – it arouses fear and mistrust in them, which leads to shame, and then rage, and the need to be ‘one up’
  • blame their partner if the relationship is struggling

Many women …

  • derive a sense of themselves through connecting to others
  • are taught to accommodate, and their anger, frustration and sense of injustice at this spills out at certain times
  • choose silence over conflict or separation, but feel resentful
  • operate in ‘one down’ mode so as not to provoke their male partner, and quietly seethe about their role
  • blame themselves for difficulties in the relationship

So far, so dispiriting. And while many men and women wouldn’t recognise themselves in those bulleted lists, if any of it resonates with you, or if you feel that your relationship suffers from ‘one up/one down’ syndrome, here are some ways forward.

  • Women have to express their needs calmly but firmly (Real encourages them to ‘talk softly but carry a big stick’). Men have to listen, and see what they can do about meeting their partner’s needs. I would go further and suggest that once there is more of a sense of two people ‘being with’ each other rather than in ‘one up’ and ‘one down’ mode, men can also be encouraged to say what they need, and women can listen, and respond
  • ‘What can I do to help you give me more of what I’d like?’ – I believe that this is an important question for both partners, as it models the fact that we can only control our own actions. It also underlines that we’re in a loop in relationship – we do something, our partner responds, we react and so on
  • Identify your bottom lines, and calmly stick to them: ‘I won’t tolerate …’
  • Accept the flaws in your relationship, regretting what is lacking without resorting to blame
  • Accept the other’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it. This becomes easier once you know that your perspective will be similarly accepted
  • Listen carefully and look for a response that furthers repair. As Real says to clients: ‘You can be right or you can be married. What’s more important to you?’
  • Try to keep control when you get that whoosh of fear, shame or anger
  • Develop your negotiating skills: with an invitation (‘Would you like to …?’), a request (‘Would you do … for me?’) or a demand (this is your bottom line again: ‘I can’t accept you shouting at me’)
  • Try to find your adult mode, keep calm, and make sure your comments are moderate even if your partner is being immoderate
  • Recognise that the following will not help your relationship: control (constantly trying to change your partner to suit your agenda), revenge (trying to hurt your partner so they actually get how much they’ve hurt you) and resignation (acting as though you accept something when really you’re resenting it).

Essentially Real is wanting to ‘bring men in from the cold’. He wants to help them to leave behind the relentless pressure to perform and to achieve, and to risk connecting with their partner, making themselves vulnerable. It’s to be hoped that they then see that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that if both partners feel connected and appreciated, all kinds of issues can be solved together.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Fathers, men and boys

It’s Father’s Day. And the end of Men’s Health Week. And after the flurry of interesting debate in the media this week about men, I wanted to add a few words of my own.

I’ve had the privilege of working with quite a few men during my years as a counsellor. They have often started out rather nervous and reluctant, and have sometimes been ‘sent’ to counselling by work, or a partner, or a friend. My job, as with any client, is to put them at their ease, almost to give them permission to be there, taking the first steps towards exploring whatever is troubling them. It is then extremely rewarding to see them begin to talk, even though they’ll often criticise themselves for ‘not knowing how to put it’ or ‘not being very good at explaining’. For some men, it’s totally unfamiliar to speak openly and honestly, to own how scared or angry or sad they may be feeling, without having to try to cover it up and be big and strong. And once they start, they realise they can find the words, in actual fact they’re perfectly able to let me know what’s going on for them, indeed they turn out to be pretty good at it.

In Steve Biddulph’s thought-provoking book Manhood, he states that men and boys account for:

90% of convicted acts of violence
90% of behavioural problems at school
80% of children with learning difficulties
90% of prison inmates
70% of the unemployed

And as if that wasn’t stark enough, men and boys take their own lives three times more often than women, and twice as many men kill themselves as die in car accidents. Furthermore, he believes that men suffer from loneliness, compulsive competition and emotional timidity.

If you’re a man reading this, before your heart sinks right down to your boots, all is not lost – Biddulph offers plenty of advice about how to turn things around. It’s worth reading the book, but I’ll give a snapshot of the steps he offers here. You can start by fixing things with your father, i.e. finding out about his past, getting into dialogue with him and engaging with him. If you’re in a relationship, try to meet your partner as an equal, by standing up for what’s true for you, rather than either keeping the peace or being a bully. If sex isn’t working, try to talk about what’s going wrong rather than simply putting up with it. Engage actively with your children – set up fun physical games with them, but also be calm and firm when it’s required. Nurture your friendships with other men – don’t compete with one another, but offer affection and support. Try to find work that you believe in, and when you retire, don’t retire from life – become an elder, as Biddulph puts it, and stay involved.

One thing that has struck me since I’ve been working with couples is how often both partners will trace the start of their difficulties to the birth of their first child. I have long felt that much more attention should be paid to fathers at this time. It’s understandable that the focus tends to be on the mother, and that focus needs to be there, but fathers could do with support too, if they’re going to be able to provide mother and baby with the nurturing they require in the early weeks. If the labour has been difficult, maybe even traumatic, the father may have witnessed some fairly terrifying events, while the mother in the throes of labour may not have been as acutely aware of what was going on. Somehow the father has to process all of that while trying to support his partner and learning to look after a new baby. He can feel pushed out, excluded from his relationship with his partner, ill at ease with the baby, and he may not know where to take any of these feelings. It’s so crucial that the couple can share the joys and the frustrations that becoming parents will bring, and perhaps a bit of awareness in advance of what some of those frustrations might be would help. Having a look at this page from the National Childbirth Trust, for example, could be a start:’s-view-changing-relationships.

Not all men are fathers, of course. There’s an interesting short film made by Samaritans here, stopping men in the street and asking how they handle difficult times in their lives. One man comments on the gulf between 'what they think they should be and what they actually are', and another observes that some men think that 'if you cry you can't climb Everest - but actually you can do both'. Of course there are many men who don’t have a problem with expressing their feelings, but most of the men interviewed here talk about how difficult it can be. There are plenty of women who find sharing their innermost thoughts unappealing as well, but it does seem as though more of them tend to seek counselling, and perhaps to talk to other people when the chips are down.

Paul Brook in his Dippyman blog gives eloquent voice to the perils of ‘manning up’, and it makes me wonder why should men always feel they have to be strong? Where do they learn that? How can we change the way we all are, so that men don’t have to fear that admitting to feeling sad or scared or tired or low or angry is weak and humiliating? How can we all help the men and boys we know to believe that it’s okay to talk about how they feel, to cry when they need to, and to own their doubts and uncertainties? It’s a big subject, and one for my next blog. Terry Real, a family therapist and lecturer, has some helpful advice about ‘bringing men in from the cold’ that I’ll share with you next time …

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Taking the plunge

Why would I decide to spend an hour a week going over difficult stuff with a stranger? It would be so embarrassing – what will he/she think about me droning on about all my ‘issues’? Aren’t there more fun ways to spend my hard-earned money? Do I really want to stir things up when life’s hard enough already? She/he won’t understand me anyway – no-one ever does. I should just pull myself together and get on with it. There are loads of people who have more serious problems than I do – and they all seem to manage fine.

It’s a big step to start counselling. You’ll probably be weighing up some of the thoughts above. You’ve probably got to the point in your life where something isn’t working, and you’re wondering if things could be different, but actually taking the plunge to contact a therapist feels pretty scary.

You could start by finding out a bit more about the many different types of therapy that are available. Would you prefer a time-limited approach, or might you like to embark on some sessions and see where they take you? Do you want to see someone more than once a week, or might it be enough to talk to someone on the phone? Would you respond best to being given strategies and tools? Would you like to share your feelings and see what patterns and themes can be uncovered?

Counselling Directory offers a summary of different kinds of therapy here and by reading this you’ll get a sense of what you think will work best for you. Once you have more of an idea of what type of therapy you’re looking for, you can find the counsellors in your area on websites such as Counselling Directory. Some therapists have links to their websites, where you can read more about their approach. You might want to give some of them a call and see if they sound like the kind of person you’d be able to work with.

You may be nervous at the beginning – you don’t know what to expect. Share your fears with your counsellor. Explain that there’s part of you that wants to sit there, and another part that would rather be almost anywhere else. Ask your counsellor about the process, tell them that you’re uncertain about what might happen, and see if they can reassure you about how the sessions will evolve. Their training and experience will help them to make you feel as comfortable as possible, and by understanding as much as they can about where you’re coming from, they’ll be able to tailor their approach to your needs. And don’t forget that you’re in control all along – you can stop the sessions whenever you like.

Once you start working together, you will develop a relationship with your counsellor, and this will vary according to their style. Some counsellors are more directive than others, some will offer specific strategies or techniques, and some will gently draw your attention to recurring themes they have noticed. What you should find with any counsellor is that they will listen carefully to what you have to say, and from their responses you will have the feeling that they are ‘getting’ you, doing their very best to understand exactly how things are for you. This process can be enormously powerful – for some people it’s the first time in their lives that they’re sitting with someone who wants to know more about how they feel about things. It may be difficult at first to trust the counsellor, to share painful thoughts and feelings, but a good therapeutic experience will allow you to open up gradually, to take things at your own pace. And this is how I feel counselling works – you have a chance to explore your needs and desires in a safe place, and your counsellor helps you to find a way forward that makes sense for you.